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Teacher Newsmagazine  Volume 22, Number 5, March 2010 

Do kids need philosphy?

By Tiffany Poirier

How to explore life’s deepest questions at school

Part 2: Excerpt from an article published in The Tyee, Sept. 8, 2009

Is school the place to tackle philosophical questions like, What is the meaning of life? What is truth? How do you know you are not dreaming right now? What would a perfect world be like?

When I tell people that I teach my elementary students the discipline of philosophy, the very notion seems to inspire instant debate—which is quite in the spirit of things!

I do, however, find that when people are uncomfortable with the idea of philosophy in a classroom, their concerns almost always stem from misunderstandings of what teaching children philosophy actually involves, at least in my own practice. The following is a collection of concerns that I have heard voiced in connection with doing philosophy at school, each followed by my response.

• Teaching philosophy is pointless because children don’t learn anything by regurgitating the opinions of dead scholars.

Children need philosophy. But that doesn’t mean we should push them into dusty copies of ancient, difficult text. I don’t mean we should pump kids full of aphorisms so they can recite them for our amusement at dinner parties.

Children should be educated in the discipline and process of philosophy. That is, children should learn to do philosophy—to ask important questions, to create, debate, and evaluate logical arguments, and to analyze how their own philosophical arguments are connected to their real life experiences.

Philosophy is a constructivist task that demands the highest order thinking skills—so if students are merely regurgitating others’ doctrines, they are not actually doing philosophy.

• Teaching philosophy at school opens the doors to brainwashing and indoctrination. Philosophy is the job of the parents.

This fear stems from confusion about what is involved. A teacher's role is to instruct students: in understanding the difference between philosophical and scientific questions; in logic (valid and invalid arguments, fallacies of reasoning, etc.); in constructing, clearly expressing, and fine-tuning their own arguments; in listening to, understanding, appreciating, respecting, and fairly considering arguments of others; and in generally acquiring the skills to dialogue in a community of inquiry.

In my class dialogues, I am a facilitator—not a guest speaker. My opinions are not the focus because the developing views of my students take centre stage. As an educational professional, I am bound by a code of ethics, and my student’s needs are the priority.

• There is no time in the crowded curriculum to squeeze in another subject.

The idea that we have time for either the regular curriculum or philosophy is a false dilemma. Teachers can do both by fostering philosophical exploration through the teaching of other academic subjects.

Teachers can begin by helping students choose meatier, more philosophical books to read and by encouraging meaningful group discussion about the students’ own deep questions.

Also, instead of having students write an essay titled “What I did on my summer vacation,” teachers could tweak the topic to include a moral dimension, like “What I should have done on my summer vacation and why.”

And for younger students building with Lego—or even older students rebuilding a car engine—a teacher could retell the story of the Ship of Theseus, inspiring minds to ponder the persistence of identity through time.

• Kids should learn practical things at school, like job skills.

As a teacher, my task is to equip students with the most important life skills so that they might be prepared to succeed and make the best choices on whichever life path they choose.

There are millions of different jobs that a child can grow up to do. And although not everyone grows up to be a professional mathematician, we still teach basic math operations since these are useful in the general course of life.

Philosophical training in a classroom that includes facilitated group dialogue can enhance students’ cognitive as well as social-emotional development. Students gain skills for self-knowledge and self-expression. They learn to test generalizations, make connections and draw inferences, find analogies, formulate and test criteria, take multiple perspectives, co-operate, build on others’ ideas, and so much more.

All of these skills are useful to those entering the job market. They are important to daily life. At the very least, they are useful when negotiating your turn on the swing at the playground.

• Talking about big issues, like death and poverty, might scare kids. Let them enjoy their innocence.

Innocence is one thing, but ignorance is another. We can’t ignore that children are, from a very young age, exposed to difficult concepts through their own experiences, omnipresent media, etc.

If we pretend things like death and poverty don’t exist, we fail to prepare children for coping in our world. We need to be sensitive, but also help them acquire the cognitive and emotional tools to deal with tough issues they will face or are already facing.

Professional educators must use discretion when teaching any subject. They must consider the needs and emotional maturity of their students when planning their lessons.

• What happens when kids have offensive views? When kids start talking, it could open a can of worms.

Teachers need to create respectful classroom environments and support the guidelines set by the school as appropriate conduct.

I remember a wonderful class discussion about freedom of speech: the students themselves came to a conclusion that with freedom of speech comes responsibility.

And since some offensive views are based on flawed reasoning, philosophy training is all the more important because it helps children think critically about the views they hold. I believe our class discussions support democracy by preparing critical thinkers able to live among cultural, theological, political, and economic diversity.

• Kids don’t need formal instruction in philosophy. They will discover their views naturally.

True, people develop and operate under personal philosophies of some sort, even when they don’t know it. Still, isn’t it better to have awareness and to be able to articulate one’s views in the form of convincing, well-supported arguments?

Being able to reason well is a part of a balanced education. Children who aren’t given the tools to identify bad reasoning and to recognize, formulate, and defend their own beliefs are more likely to get taken advantage of by their peers, the media, and anyone else who can turn a phrase.

• Philosophy is too rigid with its fixation on logic. Childhood is a time for possibilities and magic.

The universe is governed by some basic logical truths, and children, as they are ready, deserve to be let in on the secret. In this universe, 2+2 will always equal 4, and “If all men are mortal, and Socrates is a man, then Socrates is mortal.”

That is not to say that philosophy is the end of creativity; rather it can be the beginning of it. Children can find that playing with ideas in a community of inquiry is a magical process that opens minds to new ideas.

• Kids don’t want to do philosophy. It will bore them.

How much fun children are having in a lesson often relates to how much fun and creativity a teacher brings to it. Generally, I find, children appreciate and enjoy opportunities to voice their views.

Once they start, I find I can’t get them to stop being philosophical—it’s as if something has been awakened inside of them. Over and over again, my students ask to do more philosophy and they report it to be one of their favourite activities.

Philosophy conversations can explore animal rights, friendship, goals, dreams, reality, time travel, and more. And when you add in fun philosophical games, stories, and art projects, there can be something to capture the imagination of every child.

• Many kids are not cognitively ready to deal with abstract concepts.

Good teachers are sensitive to their students’ developmental levels, and they teach with instructional scaffolding to help students get to the next cognitive stage. While they may not be able to read Plato, even Kindergarten children have meaningful answers to questions like: What is fair? What is real?, and How should we treat others?

The bottom line is that for students to grow, teachers should open doors. With support, and when they are ready, students will walk through them.

To learn more about teaching children to philosophize, please visit www.qisforquestion.com

Tiffany Poirier is a Surrey elementary school teacher.

Poirier is the author/illustrator of Q Is for Question: An ABC of Philosophy, released in 2009. See www.qisforquestion.com for details.